15 July 2024


The Terror Trap had the pleasure of asking director David Schmoeller some questions about his work and career in film.

Raised and educated in Texas, he started out as a playwright and attended the Universidad De Las Americas in Mexico City where he studied theatre and film with directors Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

He began his directing career over 30 years ago with Tourist Trap (1979).

Among Schmoeller's credits are The Seduction (1982) starring Morgan Fairchild and Andrew Stevens, Crawlspace (1986) starring Klaus Kinski, as well as the cult favorite Puppet Master (1989).

Additionally, he helmed The Arrival (1990), Netherworld (1991), Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice (1993) and The Secret Kingdom (1997).

His TV work includes the short-lived but well regarded '70s show James At 15, as well as Silk Stalkings, Renegade and Cop Files.

The Terror Trap: You spent six months as an intern with Peter Hyams on his film Capricorn One, which he wrote and directed. It's a fine '70s thriller as far as we're concerned. What did you learn from that experience?

David Schmoeller: Peter Hyams was very generous with his time and I was fortunate enough to have this paid internship courtesy of the American Film Institute and the Academy of Arts & Sciences (TV Academy).

I spent six months, every day all day, watching how a film was made. When I directed my first feature a year later, I at least knew when to call "action." Actually, I was still a first time director and had to face all those issues but I was comfortable with the process because I had experienced it at close-range with Hyams on Capricorn One.

TT: Your thesis film at the University of Texas - The Spider Will Kill You - had as its theme mannequins coming to life. Tell us about that.

DS: I had taken an experimental video class at UT in graduate school. One of the pieces I did was inspired by this line of mannequins I discovered at J.C. Penney's - very bizarre, very stylized design.

The infant mannequins had detailed features: eyes, mouth, nose and ears. But as the mannequins aged, they began losing features. The mannequins aged 3-4 lost their eyes and it became just a smooth surface over where their eyes would be.

By the time you got to mannequins representing kids 10-14, they had lost their mouths. By the time they were adults, they had no features at all...just smoothed over impressions where their mouths would be, their nose, their eyes, their ears.

So I did this piece about humans and these odd, beautiful mannequins. By the time I did my thesis film, I had this story about a blind man who fell in love with a mannequin. I liked the notion of making mannequins come alive; it was part of my surrealism picked up from Luis Buñuel & Jodorowsky...

TT: It must have been a thrill to have it nominated for a student film Academy Award.

DS: Yes, it was validating. Robert Zemeckis (Field of Honor) and I were the finalists in the Special Jury Category. He won; I was runner up. William Friedkin gave me my award and I thought I was on my way.

It got me an agent and later, I wrote a two hour version (mannequins coming alive) of my thesis film. When Charles Band read it and liked the script (I was attached as director), he said, "How do I know if you can direct?" I showed him The Spider Will Kill You and he hired me.

TT: Your producer and co-writer for Tourist Trap was J. Larry Carroll. How did that collaboration come about?

DS: I knew Larry from UT. He was one of the editors on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We wanted to repeat that experience, i.e. write a script with me attached as director and Larry as producer. It worked, except we didn't have the phenomenal box-office success that Chainsaw had...

TT: Two sons of very famous and important directors worked on the film. One was Nicholas Von Sternberg, son of Joseph Von Sternberg (the man who discovered Marlene Dietrich and directed her pivotal early roles).

The other was David Wyler, William Wyler's son. Was that a coincidence or did you think you might learn something by working with these men?

DS: It was strictly a coincidence. But I did learn a lot from Nick Von Sternberg. He was great. Ron Underwood was my AD and Robert Harmon was my Still Man. Both went on to become excellent directors.

TT: How were you able to get Pino Donaggio to do the music?

DS: Pino was in town doing Piranha for Joe Dante. He didn't speak English, which was a problem for Joe. Fortunately, he spoke Spanish. I had been an English-Spanish interpreter for ABC Sports during the 1968 Olympics when I was in undergraduate school in Mexico City. So Pino was relieved to have a director he could communicate with.

I went on to do two more films with Pino. His fee for the score on Tourist Trap was 1/6 the entire budget for the film. So, he was way out of our league price-wise, but I'm so glad Charlie sprang for it.

TT: His score for your film is often described as one of his loveliest and most haunting pieces. Were you pleased with it and do you think it serves the movie well at all times? Are there any points during the film where you would change anything about it?

DS: I was pleased with the score. It rarely happens that you are happy with every cue. Sometimes, you move them around. On a low-budget movie (and with Pino doing the score in Venice, Italy...the recording session was in Rome) you don't get to redo cues.

So, I'm sure there are certain cues I'm not as happy about as others. But I think it's a very effective score for this movie. That opinion is very subjective though.

Irwin Yablans, who was the distributor, wouldn't speak to me after he heard it. He thought I had ruined the movie. He had Halloween and Tourist Trap in post production at the same time. He saw both films as picture cuts with no music or sound effects.

He thought Tourist Trap was going to be a big hit. He thought Halloween was just your average horror film. Then John Carpenter did this remarkably effective score and the film was transformed.

Tourist Trap has a very elegant, haunting, even lush score, which I liked. But Irwin hated it...and of course, the film did not have anywhere near the success that Halloween had.

TT: Within the first few minutes of Tourist Trap, we see Woody get killed off in a very powerful opener. It certainly sets the tone of the film and lets you then introduce the major players with a bit more ease, before spiraling into madness. Were there any reservations about killing off a character so early on, or did you feel it necessary to provide this jolt to keep the audience's interest?

DS: You have to place that scene in a certain historical perspective. Tourist Trap was made at the tail end of the "drive-in theater" period. In those days, distributors and exhibitors looked at the first reel. If it grabbed them, they bought it. If not, they didn't. So you had to have this big "grabber" right at the start. It was a required formula.

TT: Tourist Trap was made in 24 days. Is that average for this type of film? Did you feel rushed during the shoot or do you think you had enough time to realize your vision?

DS: Directing is all about getting enough days in your schedule. And you never have enough days. Lately, I've been doing 18-day films. So, I would kill to have 24. I had 40 on The Seduction.

Too bad I didn't have a better script. I wrote it with much assistance from Bruce and Irwin, the producers. Twenty-four days would be a luxury for me now. I'm so much more experienced as a director, I could make twice the movie with 24 days as I did when I was making Tourist Trap as a first time director.

TT: Bob Burns, who had worked on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, did the majority of the special effects as well as the mannequins. Did you hire him solely because of his work on the earlier film?

DS: Yes. Bob was also from Austin and we wanted him because of his extraordinary work on Chainsaw. He delivered. What he is great at...is that he can do so much for so little money.

TT: The masks by David Ayres are very effective. How did you come to hire him?

DS: I actually don't remember how we came across David. He might have worked with Charlie before - or maybe we selected him after an interview. There were a lot of mask works in Tourist Trap...and the mask work was spread out between a handful of very gifted artists.

TT: What was it like to work with Chuck Connors?

DS: He was basically pretty good to work with. He really liked the project and his role. He actually wanted to become the new Vincent Price or Boris Karloff of the horror genre. To rejuvenate his career at that time.

He tried to give me a hard time because it was my first time out but I knew he didn't mean it. He worked very hard on the film...which a lot of actors in his position don't do. I won't name names but I have worked with some of them who were bitter about doing low-budget movies after being stars at some higher level.

TT: How did you find the experience with Tanya Roberts? Did you find this future Charlie's Angel to be particularly ambitious?

DS: Tanya was fairly new to acting but she worked very hard. She needed a director who knew much more about working with actors than I did at the time. But she was game and her death scene is pretty chilling.

TT: It's been said that during the filming of Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier had little patience for Dustin Hoffman's "method" acting. "Just act, my dear boy" was the advice he gave the younger star.

You have mentioned a similar dynamic between Chuck Connors and Jocelyn Jones.

DS: Chuck was a baseball star who stumbled into the acting game as a career change. He had no training at all as an actor. He just did it and he expected everyone else to work the same way.

Jocelyn was a thoroughly trained actor, on the other hand. Her father was the great character actor Henry Jones of The Bad Seed fame. And Jocelyn used her training in her work. (I later studied acting with her before I studied with Milton Katselas). She did these wild breathing exercises and this chair thing to prepare for a scene.

Chuck thought it was pretty goofy. And he said so. Jocelyn held her ground and eventually Chuck let her do her preparations. It's amusing to me as I look back on it now. I can still see Chuck starring at Jocelyn incredulous as she did these wild breathing gyrations. But it was pretty stressful at the time because I had to work so hard to keep Chuck cool about it.

TT: Jocelyn is now an acting teacher?

DS: Yes, I think she is still teaching at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Milton Katselas' school.

TT: How in the world did Tourist Trap get a PG rating? Do you think that hurt it at the box-office?

DS: That rating stunned us. And it killed the movie. No one goes to see a PG horror film. I would not let my son see any of the movie before we got that rating because I thought it was far too intense and violent for him. It usually works the other way.

The Ratings Board is much harder on indie movies. And it gives the studio movies easier ratings for tougher material, i.e. a PG-13 to an intense Spielberg movie so that it will reach a much wider audience.

TT: You cleverly credit someone named 'Shailar Cobi' in the role of Davey, a character that doesn't exist. It reminds us of the fact that Hitchcock held auditions for the non-existent role of Mother in PSYCHO, just to throw audiences off.

DS: My son's name is Shailar Cobi Schmoeller. We wanted the audience to think Davey was a real character.

TT: Mannequins are featured in several Mario Bava films, including Blood and Black Lace (1964), Hatchet for a Honeymoon (1970) and Lisa and the Devil (1974). Had you seen these movies and did they influence you at all?

DS: Never saw them. Still haven't...although now I'll go out and try to find them.

TT: Stephen King has called Tourist Trap one of his personal favorite horror films. Any thoughts on that? Have you two ever talked about it?

DS: I tried to get hold of Stephen King through my agency but never succeeded. I think it was a big mistake on my part to not have tried harder. I might have had a more successful career if I had gotten in touch with him and persuaded him to let me direct one of his stories. I guess it's not too late. Anybody have his phone number? His email address?

TT: Earlier you mentioned your 1982 film The Seduction, which was a commercial failure. Was that a setback for you?

DS: It actually was not a commercial failure. The distribution company did very well by it. And financially, it is my most successful film in terms of residuals.

But to your point, it was certainly a critical bomb. Variety said everyone involved in the film would never work again. And I didn't direct another movie for five years.

It was an awful experience for me in every way. I'm personally embarrassed by the film...but it plays on TV and cable all the time, even after all these years. And I like the money so I accept it as my poor stepchild film.

TT: You had more "names" on that film: Andrew Stevens, Morgan Fairchild and Michael Sarrazin. Was it a troubled shoot?

DS: It wasn't a troubled shoot. It went fairly smoothly - if you don't count Bruce and Irwin fighting with each other the whole time. Frankly, I thought Morgan Fairchild was badly miscast. I wanted Teresa Russell but the producers didn't know who she was. And at first, I didn't know who Morgan Fairchild was...so clearly, I had an entirely different movie in mind than Bruce and Irwin.

TT: Let's move on to Puppet Master, which is considered a cult-classic and continued the theme of inanimate objects coming to life. In that respect at least, it bears similarity to Tourist Trap.

How do you feel about this piece? Where do you think it's successful and where do you think it's lacking?

DS: Puppet Master was the first film made by Full Moon Entertainment and Paramount and turned out to be a surprise hit.

It launched Full Moon as a production company and subsequently as a label. I wrote and directed Puppet Master. As a writer, I used a pseudonym: Joseph Collodi.

I created the puppets. 'Blade' is really Klaus Kinski. See the resemblance? It spawned a franchise and I think they are up to number seven (Puppet Master versus Demonic Toys) now!

One of the bigger differences between producers Roger Corman and Charlie Band is that Roger always gave credit to the directors. He promoted the films AND the directors who made them. Charlie never gives credit to the directors. He promotes the films and himself. It's too bad.

TT: Why weren't you involved with any of the sequels?

Charlie did not want my involvement in the franchise because it would look like I had something to do with the success of the franchise. He did not even have the director's commentary on the Puppet Master DVD because it would reveal that someone else shared in the creation of Full Moon's biggest and most successful franchise.

I know I'm whining here but I've made some good movies for Charlie and I've made him a lot of money...and have been little rewarded for it. He won't even pay me the residuals that he owes me. It's the usual Hollywood story.

Writer John Michael Hayes wrote five or six of Alfred Hitchcock's best films (Rear Window, etc.) but was terribly underpaid by Hitchcock. He finally went in after all these big hits and asked for a raise. Instead of giving him even a modest raise, producer Hitchcock never worked with him again. Who can figure that kind of pathology?

TT: Indeed. Were you happy with the animation and special effects by David Allen?

DS: The animation was cool but always looked hokey to me. Pinhead rising, then jumping out of the casket - is a funny, creepy, surprising moment. That's one of the more successful examples of the animation. Dave Allen was the best at his work. But it still looks like animation, and to my taste, rather hokey. If it was done today, it would probably be a CGI effect and much more believable.

TT: You made a film called Catacombs in 1988, which was about demonic possession at an Italian monastery. It was retitled Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice and given new life in 1993. Whose idea was that?

DS: I had just finished Catacombs for Empire International (founded by Charlie Band) when the bank took over the company and forced Charlie out. The bank brought in Epic to dismantle the company and service the library of films.

I hand-carried the only print of Catacombs to the Cannes film market. Unfortunately, the French distributor kept the only print. I couldn't even get a video copy of it. The lab had one print but I could only screen it at the lab if I wanted my agent or prospective producers to see it.

After two years, I got a mysterious phone call from an anonymous person who said there was a video copy for me at this hotel. I went and picked it up. The video had been made in Japan. At least I had a copy. The film was never released domestically as far as I know.

Years later, MGM bought the Epic Library and they retitled Catacombs as Curse IV and released it as a laserdisc.

It was nicely reviewed but remains completely in obscurity. It's some of my best work. Check out the opening. The first fifteen minutes are in Latin. I still get a kick out of pulling THAT off. And the Christ-comes-off-the-cross scene...

TT: Interesting. Do you consider yourself a (horror) genre director?

DS: I consider myself a filmmaker who has made a number of horror films. I think the horror film is greatly underrated. And it's clearly treated as the poor stepchild of films.

TT: What kinds of films do you most enjoy watching?

DS: I see everything over and over again. I love documentaries. I love foreign films because we get so few of them even in Los Angeles. The DVD is proving to be a great place to see previously unattainable films. I just bought a copy of Fando & Lis, Jodorowsky's first feature.

El Topo is supposed to be coming out soon, can't wait for that. I'm going to track down those Mario Bava films you mentioned and see if I can get them on DVD.

TT: How do you enjoy working in television compared to feature films?

DS: Television is not a director's medium. The power lies with the writer-producer. So it's not the most rewarding place to be as a director unless you are doing some of the more fun TV shows like The Sopranos or something.

TT: What film are you most proud of?

DS: Right now, I'm pleased with my new film Please Kill Mr. Kinski, which I finished last year and its had a great critical ride on the festival circuit.

TT: Which director has had the biggest impact on you?

DS: The list is huge. I have close to four thousand movies in my personal collection and will watch a movie over and over as I study it. Bertolucci. Spielberg. Scorsese. Kieslowski. Rene Clement. Just too many to name.

Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky are two directors I met when I was twenty and are directly responsibly for me going to film school. So they probably have had the biggest impact.

TT: Tell us about your latest film, Mysterious Museum.

DS: It's a kids picture, similar to another kid's picture I did in 1997 called The Secret Kingdom. It's not a horror film although these films are marketed as "family films with edge" because of the spooky effects.

TT: Are there any projects on the backburner you're particularly excited about?

DS: Ha, Ha Horror is one of several films I've written that I'm trying to get made. It's a black-comedy horror film about a third-string film critic for a big city newspaper who gets stuck reviewing only horror films.

He has seen 167 horror films in the last three months and the horrific images are starting to bleed into his reality. Just when he thinks he is going crazy, he discovers a disgruntled director who he panned is trying to drive him crazy. It's a funny love-story with wild but funny special effects. At the end, the film reviewer has to rescue his girlfriend who is stuck in the movie he is reviewing. It's a fun movie and I hope I get it made.

Another pet project of mine is called Catch the Wind. A Romeo-Juliet teenage love story set in Cuba.

TT: You founded The Directors' Workshop. Does that give you the most satisfaction?

DS: I enjoy teaching and I'm proud of the success of The Directors' Workshop but what gives me the most satisfaction is writing and directing movies.

TT: Finally, with the exception of a handful of well-regarded "classics," the horror genre is generally maligned by mainstream critics who simply point to some inferior films as proof of their opinions. We feel this all too often contributes to real gems being ignored at the expense of this 'forgotten stepchild' genre.

Thankfully and not surprisingly, we've had so many people come to The Terror Trap who remember Tourist Trap and who love it. Do you feel mainstream critics do not give the horror genre its due? If so, why do you think this is?

DS: Because many horror films tend to be low budget, this is one genre where many first time directors can get a start. And unfortunately, many horror films are pretty shlocky. So the general impression is that horror films are mostly shlocky.

But there is a real stigma about the horror film, you're right. I suppose because of the violence and the lawlessness of it. It tends to scare, even bother people. And you're absolutely right, as a result much good work in the horror genre is overlooked or dismissed...by film critics in particular and the audience in general. Their loss, huh?

TT: We couldn't have said it better. Thanks David and good luck with all your future endeavors!

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